Carbohydrates: the good and the bad
Not all sugar is the same
People often ask whether sugar and carbohydrates are the same thing. The reason for this confusion is simple: carbohydrates consist of sugar molecules and are broken down into sugar in the digestive system. Fruit also contains large quantities of carbohydrates due to its sugar content. Indeed, fructose is thought to be a key factor in the development of metabolic syndrome.
However, not all carbohydrates are the same, and neither are all sugar molecules. To help us calculate the effect of different sugar molecules in our bodies, we use the glycaemic index (GI). This is a ranking system that was introduced in the early 1980s to show the impact of various carbohydrates on blood glucose levels.
The sugar contained in low GI carbohydrates takes longer to be digested and broken down, so the blood sugar level rises more slowly too: a highly desirable effect!
Glycaemic load is a measure that takes into account the amount of carbohydrates in a portion of food. For example, when we consume foods rich in mono- or disaccharides, such as grapes or household sugar, the sugars are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream and our blood sugar levels surge. Large quantities of insulin need to be produced in order to convert the glucose into energy or store it for later use. After a sugar-rich meal, we initially experience very high blood sugar levels, swiftly followed by a sugar crash and, more often than not, food cravings. When we eat complex carbohydrates, however, ideally in combination with fibre-rich foods, our blood sugar levels rise more slowly; this causes only small amounts of insulin to be released and we feel fuller for longer.
Simple versus complex carbohydrates
The body absorbs the simple carbohydrates found in sweets or white flour at an exceptionally fast rate. This leads to a rapid rise in blood glucose level followed by a crash and cravings.
Complex carbohydrates, ...
… on the other hand, are metabolised at a much slower rate. These are often found in fibre, i.e. in indigestible plant fibres which are more difficult to break down. And that‘s just as well as they are more filling.
Complex carbohydrates are found in:
- All wholegrain products (bread, pasta, etc.)
- Vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, kale, spinach, peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms and asparagus
- Fruit, e.g. apples, pears, pineapples and melons
- Skimmed milk products
- Legumes, e.g. beans, lentils, chickpeas and peas
- Wheat bran, rolled oats, buckwheat, amaranth, quinoa, millet and lupine beans
- Brown rice
- Sweet potatoes and potatoes
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